Many destinations want to keep up with their competitors and promote their respective plans to grow and better manage tourism as some cities’ tourist infrastructure can’t keep up with demand.

Using data is key to putting those plans in motion but too often that data – even when available – doesn’t trickle down to local city and neighborhood decision makers.

That’s the view of some tourism boards and researchers who spoke at the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) International Conference on Tourism Statistics last month in Manilla, the Philippines. Some of the discussions centered around creating a global framework for measuring tourism and how to use data to create sustainable growth plans.

The conference included delegates from 88 countries and was part of the United Nation’s 2017 International Year of Sustainable Tourism For Development.

Many attendees were optimistic about Big Data’s potential for managing tourism growth but were also concerned that destinations aren’t making their plans simple enough for residents to understand while making them too broad for local neighborhoods to find them useful.

“Tourism happens at the community level and it’s at that level that we’ll need to translate this kind of evolving thinking into first off, language that ordinary mortals understand,” said Geoffrey Lipman, a professor of sustainable tourism growth at Hasselt University in Limburg, Belgium andand co-founder of SUNx, a non-profit organization that helps destinations combat climate change, speaking during the conference.

Portugal, for example, has seen an influx of tourists in recent years and its government recently announced a set of goals aimed at the economic, environmental and social and cultural impact of tourism.

But those are big-picture goals which aren’t localized to meet specific communities’ challenges, said Sérgio Guerreiro, director of knowledge management and corporate affairs, at Turismo de Portugal, the country’s national destination marketing organization, speaking during the conference.

“We have a national, broader perspective, but then decision-making is more local,” said Guerreiro. “There’s been no framework until now with how to deal with pressure at the local level.”

Big Data isn’t the only answer to creating smart tourism growth strategies, said Guerreiro. “That broad, national plan gave us the idea to start working with startups all over the country to understand how technology can be an enabler in terms of generating new sources of information,” he said.

Programs such as Smart Open Lisbon, launched earlier this year, will enable12 startups to try and improve how residents and tourists share transportation options and make buildings more environmentally friendly, said Guerreiro.

“Yesterday’s data is no longer enough for the industry to make decisions,” he said. “A lot of cities in Portugal are starting to work with sensors and mobile data to put that towards the management of a city.”

Nearby Andalusia, Spain – located in the one of the world’s most-visited countries with 75.5 million international visitors last year – said that, while many global tourism organizations such as UNWTO work towards a unified model on measuring sustainable tourism growth, there’s no ideal model for measuring tourism, said Ana Moniche, a researcher at Turismo Andaluz, the region’s tourism board.

“The model itself will always depend on what your aim is, what your timeline is and what your territorial scope is,” said Moniche, speaking during the conference. “But we should never forget about the user profiles we are aiming at. The better definition we have of those user profiles, the better the model will be.”

Using Data From Residents and Travelers

U.S., gateway cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco don’t seem to be talking aggressively about what Skift has dubbed overtourism, said Chris Fair, president of Resonance, a consultancy firm that helps destinations and governments create development strategies for tourism and other urban growth opportunities.

Second-tier U.S. cities such as Madison, Wisconsin; Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Charleston, South Carolina seem to be having more active discussions about how to manage tourism growth, said Fair, in a phone interview. “These cities are talking about not how to grow tourism more but how to better manage what they have,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about getting more tourists. With small destinations it’s like a canary in the coal mine.”

Airbnb and other sharing economy platforms are causing residents to feel pressure in many communities, said Fair. “Vacation rentals are increasing in residential neighborhoods. The growth of tourism is more apparent to the local communities but it also seems to be a perception versus actual capacity debate too.”

For some cities such as Vienna, Austria, gathering data from residents is another prong to growth plans.

Sharing economy platforms such as Airbnb, for instance, haven’t triggered a backlash from residents – yet, said Michael Gigl, region manager for Vienna Tourist Board’s North America and Australia offices.

“There is a growing sensitivity on the sharing economy but it hasn’t reached a level where the city doesn’t know what to do with it,” said Gigl.

The Vienna Tourist Board surveyed 2,000 city residents last year about the city’s tourism and its goal to reach 18 million overnight stays by 2020, up from about 6.9 million total arrivals and 14.5 million overnight stays in 2016.

Some 82 percent of respondents said that tourism doesn’t disrupt their daily lives and 89 percent said that tourism is an important economic generator for Vienna.

Some 90 percent also said they directly benefit from tourism. “Tourism density in Vienna is not as high as it is in other places such as Barcelona where it’s about 11 overnight visitors per capita, Amsterdam where it’s 16 overnight visitors per capita and in Vienna, it’s eight overnight visitors per capita,” said Gigl.

Other national, regional and city governments use data from surveys like Vienna’s to inform how they work with their constituents. “There must be an understanding between the government and private sector in any destination,” said Beatriz Marco Arce, deputy director of tourism intelligence at Turespaña, Spain’s national tourism board, speaking during the conference.

“Politicians are taking more into account how citizens are voting,” she said. “Hotel owners don’t feel good if the city council says they want to limit tourists or that we’re thinking about limiting tourists.”

Overcrowding from tourism likely doesn’t matter as much from a traveler’s point of view but the environmental component of tourism does, said Sarah Mathews, head of destination marketing for Asia-Pacific for TripAdvisor. She spoke at the conference and discussed what TripAdvisor’s data says about travelers’ thoughts on their environmental impact.

Mathews said that properties with TripAdvisor GreenLeaders status have a seven percent higher rating on average than those without that distinction. The GreenLeaders program lets properties apply for certification for their environmental commitments and eco-friendly practices.

Hotel design such as using recycled glass for a lobby chandelier is often just as valued by travelers as a hotel’s effort’s to conserve water and energy, said Mathews, citing TripAdvisor reviews data. “These properties tend to deliver guest experiences that travelers are pleased about,” she said.

Many destinations in various regions have made progress and have been early leaders in using data from mobile devices to measure how many tourists are moving through a city center, a feat not possible even a few years ago.

But where does that data end up, and does it reach the people who need it most? That’s the question that many destination marketers and governments are still working to answer.

One thing that’s clear is that destinations need to ensure that any tourism growth strategy they adopt can be localized from a national perspective down to a neighborhood level and must be presented in layman’s terms to residents.

Sustainable tourism growth also has different meanings for different destinations with some places focusing more on the environmental aspect while others closely consider residents’ lives as tourism expands.

Propping up a global framework for tourism growth management for tourism boards and governments will help advise destinations on using data but likely won’t address their specific needs.

Tags: tourism, unwto
Photo Credit: Many destinations want to create sustainable tourism plans but are still figuring out how to use data to do that. Pictured is a tour group in Lisbon, Portugal. Dave Collier / Flickr